Mitochondrial Dysfunction is a Contributing Cause of T Cell Exhaustion

T cell exhaustion occurs in aging, but also in circumstances in which the adaptive immune system is constantly stimulated over time, such as in cases of persistent HIV infection, or the presence of solid tumors. An exhausted T cell has adopted a state in which it is functionally incapable, no longer responsive to antigens. Ways to reverse T cell exhaustion would be very beneficial, and so the research community has made some inroads in understanding the mechanisms of exhaustion, enough to produce proof of concept approaches, such as those involving epigenetic reprogramming, BAFT upregulation, TIGIT knockdown, and various small molecules identified in screening programs.

In today's research materials, scientists provide evidence for T cell exhaustion to be caused by mitochondrial dysfunction. Thus ways to maintain or restore mitochondrial function will allow cells to resist the exhausted state. This may explain the success that researchers have had with epigenetic reprogramming in the context of T cell exhaustion, as this intervention is well known to restore mitochondrial function. Overall, this finding is quite interesting in the context of age-related T cell exhaustion, given the mitochondrial dysfunction that occurs with advancing age. It suggests that all strategies that can improve mitochondrial function may produce corresponding gains in immune function.

Preventing the Exhaustion of T Cells

When mitochondrial respiration fails, a cascade of reactions is triggered, culminating in the genetic and metabolic reprogramming of T cells - a process that drives their functional exhaustion. But this "burnout" of the T cells can be counteracted: pharmacological or genetic optimization of cellular metabolism increases the longevity and functionality of T cells. This can be achieved, for example, by overexpressing a mitochondrial phosphate transporter that drives the production of the energy-providing molecule adenosine-triphosphate.

"It was commonly assumed that the observed alterations in the mitochondrial metabolism were a consequence of T-cell exhaustion." To demonstrate that mitochondrial dysfunction is the actual cause of T cell exhaustion, researcher developed a new genetic model. It switches off the mitochondrial phosphate transporter (SLC25A3) and paralyses mitochondrial respiration in T cells. As a result, the T cells are forced to switch to alternative metabolic pathways, mainly aerobic glycolysis, to meet their bioenergetic demand in the form of adenosine triphosphate. However, this metabolic adaptation causes an increased production of reactive oxygen species in the T cells.

Elevated levels of oxygen radicals prevent the degradation of the transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor 1 alpha (HIF-1-alpha). The accumulation of HIF-1-alpha protein causes a genetic and metabolic reprogramming of the T cells, accelerating their exhaustion. "This HIF-1-alpha-dependent control of T-cell exhaustion was previously unknown. It represents a critical regulatory circuit between mitochondrial respiration and T cell function, serving as a 'metabolic checkpoint' in the process of T-cell exhaustion."

Mitochondrial dysfunction promotes the transition of precursor to terminally exhausted T cells through HIF-1α-mediated glycolytic reprogramming

T cell exhaustion is a hallmark of cancer and persistent infections, marked by inhibitory receptor upregulation, diminished cytokine secretion, and impaired cytolytic activity. Terminally exhausted T cells are steadily replenished by a precursor population (Tpex), but the metabolic principles governing Tpex maintenance and the regulatory circuits that control their exhaustion remain incompletely understood. Using a combination of gene-deficient mice, single-cell transcriptomics, and metabolomic analyses, we show that mitochondrial insufficiency is a cell-intrinsic trigger that initiates the functional exhaustion of T cells.

At the molecular level, we find that mitochondrial dysfunction causes redox stress, which inhibits the proteasomal degradation of hypoxia-inducible factor 1α (HIF-1α) and promotes the transcriptional and metabolic reprogramming of Tpex cells into terminally exhausted T cells. Our findings also bear clinical significance, as metabolic engineering of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells is a promising strategy to enhance the stemness and functionality of Tpex cells for cancer immunotherapy.


Mitochondria were once free-living bacteria that were engulfed by a eukaryotic cell, establishing a symbiotic relationship.

Considering the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria, it's noteworthy that mitochondria have not evolved independently since their assimilation by the host cell. This lack of independent evolution might make mitochondria more vulnerable to accumulating damage over time, as they are dependent on the host cell's nuclear genome for maintenance and repair mechanisms.

Mitochondria are responsible for producing the majority of cellular energy through oxidative phosphorylation. During this process, reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated as byproducts. Over time, these ROS can cause damage to mitochondrial DNA, proteins, and lipids, leading to impaired function.

Mitochondrial DNA is particularly susceptible to damage because it lacks protective histones and efficient DNA repair mechanisms compared to nuclear DNA. The accumulation of mutations and damage to mitochondrial DNA can result in impaired mitochondrial function and reduced energy production.

As mitochondria become damaged and less efficient in energy production, cells may experience a decline in function. This decline contributes to the aging phenotype, affecting tissues and organs throughout the body. Cellular processes such as apoptosis (programmed cell death) may be affected, leading to the accumulation of damaged cells.
The mitochondrial theory of aging suggests that the gradual decline in mitochondrial function contributes to the aging process. As energy production falters and oxidative stress increases, cells become more susceptible to damage, and tissues and organs lose their functionality over time.

Mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in various age-related diseases, such as neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic disorders. These conditions often manifest as individuals age, further supporting the connection between mitochondrial dysfunction and the aging process.

The vulnerability of mitochondria due to their evolutionary history and the cumulative damage they experience over time can contribute significantly to the overall aging phenotype and, eventually, death.

Posted by: Jones at November 10th, 2023 3:04 AM

Dysfunctional, distressed mitochondria can signal the nucleus through ROS and changes in cellular energy status, leading to the activation of nuclear mTOR. While this activation may initially be an adaptive response to resolve mitochondrial issues, failure to fully address the mitochondrial distress can result in persistent activation of mTOR, contributing to cellular dysfunction and potentially playing a role in the aging process.
ROS Signaling:

Dysfunctional mitochondria often generate an excess of ROS as byproducts of oxidative phosphorylation. ROS are signaling molecules that can impact cellular function.
Elevated ROS levels serve as a signal to the nucleus, indicating mitochondrial stress and potential damage.

Energy Sensing:

Mitochondria play a central role in cellular energy production. When mitochondria are distressed and unable to meet the energy demands of the cell, cellular energy (such as ATP) levels decrease.
Low cellular energy levels or an altered ratio of ATP to AMP can activate AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a cellular energy sensor that can also influence mTOR activity.
Nuclear mTOR Activation:

The nucleus receives signals from distressed mitochondria, especially through ROS and energy status.
In response to these signals, the nucleus may activate the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR), a central regulator of cell growth, metabolism, and autophagy.
Attempted Resolution:

The activation of nuclear mTOR can be an attempt by the cell to resolve the mitochondrial distress. mTOR activation can influence cellular processes, including those related to mitochondrial biogenesis and autophagy.
mTOR activation may be aimed at promoting the removal of damaged mitochondria through a process called mitophagy or stimulating the generation of new, functional mitochondria.
Failure to Resolve Mitochondrial Distress:

In cases where the mitochondrial distress is severe or persistent, the cell may struggle to fully resolve the issue despite the activation of nuclear mTOR.
Mitochondrial damage that surpasses the cell's repair or removal capacity can result in a continuous cycle of mitochondrial distress and persistent activation of nuclear mTOR.
Consequences of Persistent Nuclear mTOR Activation:

Persistent activation of mTOR can have detrimental effects on cellular function. It may lead to aberrant cell growth, impaired autophagy, and disrupted cellular homeostasis.
The inability to effectively resolve mitochondrial distress may contribute to the aging process and increase the susceptibility to age-related diseases.

Posted by: Jones at November 10th, 2023 3:20 AM

Persistent nuclear mTOR activation resulting from the failure to resolve mitochondrial distress can have significant implications for cellular processes, including apoptosis (programmed cell death) and the generation of tissue disruption through the secretion of pro-inflammatory signals known as the Senescence-Associated Secretory Phenotype (SASP).
Apoptosis and mTOR Regulation:

mTOR is involved in the regulation of apoptosis, and its persistent activation can influence the apoptotic pathways within cells.
In certain contexts, prolonged mTOR activation has been associated with the suppression of apoptosis, leading to the survival of cells that might otherwise undergo programmed cell death.
Mitochondrial Distress and Apoptosis:

Mitochondria play a central role in apoptosis. When mitochondria are dysfunctional, they can release pro-apoptotic signals, triggering the activation of apoptotic pathways.
Failure to resolve mitochondrial distress may result in persistent activation of nuclear mTOR, which could interfere with the normal apoptotic response.
Resistance to Apoptosis:

If mTOR remains persistently activated, it might contribute to the resistance of cells to apoptosis. This resistance can lead to the survival of damaged cells that would typically undergo programmed cell death.
Senescence and SASP:

Cells that resist apoptosis in the face of mitochondrial distress may enter a state of senescence, a state of stable cell cycle arrest.
Senescent cells often exhibit SASP, a phenomenon where they release pro-inflammatory cytokines, growth factors, and matrix metalloproteinases.
Tissue Disruption by SASP:

SASP can have deleterious effects on surrounding tissues. The secretion of inflammatory signals by senescent cells can attract immune cells, contributing to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation, driven by SASP, is implicated in tissue disruption and dysfunction. It can contribute to the progression of various age-related diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and cardiovascular diseases.
Linking mTOR Activation, Senescence, and Tissue Disruption:

The persistent activation of nuclear mTOR, resulting from unresolved mitochondrial distress, can thus be linked to the evasion of apoptosis and the promotion of senescence.
Senescent cells with activated mTOR contribute to tissue disruption through the secretion of SASP components, fostering a pro-inflammatory microenvironment.
Implications for Aging and Disease:

The chronic presence of senescent cells with SASP can contribute to the aging process and the development of age-related diseases.
Tissue disruption, driven by the pro-inflammatory signals released by senescent cells, may further exacerbate cellular dysfunction and contribute to the deterioration of organ function over time.
Persistent nuclear mTOR activation due to the failure to resolve mitochondrial distress can interfere with apoptosis, leading to the survival of damaged cells that enter senescence and contribute to tissue disruption through the secretion of SASP. This interplay may have profound implications for the aging process and the development of age-related diseases.

Posted by: Jones at November 10th, 2023 3:27 AM

Thank you Jones, excellent post. With mTOR being a bad actor when constantly activated, a good case can be made for tamping it down once a week with rapamycin.

Posted by: august33 at November 10th, 2023 10:00 PM
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